By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KOHLER, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The Tiger Woods show entered a more positive phase on Thursday but it was American Bubba Watson and Italian Francesco Molinari who took control at the U.S. PGA Championship in a fog-disrupted first round.
On a tough and breezy Whistling Straits layout demanding precision off the tee and plenty of patience, left-hander Watson and Molinari carded matching four-under-par 68s to set the pace in the year's final major.
American Ryan Moore briefly got to five under but bogeyed two of his last three holes playing into the wind for a 69 to finish level with compatriot Charles Howell III and Australian Jason Day.
Woods, whose world number one ranking is under threat following the worst PGA Tour performance of his career last week, appeared to be back on track as he opened with a 71.
Seventy-eight players in the field were yet to complete their rounds when play was suspended for the day in fading light after fog delayed the start of the tournament by more than three hours.
Among those still out on the course, South African Ernie Els and Americans Matt Kuchar and Nick Watney were at four under. Els and Kuchar, who holed out with a wedge to eagle the 13th, had completed 14 holes and Watney 11.
Although Woods lost ground after racing into a tie for the lead with three birdies in his first four holes, he was delighted to record only his third sub-par score in his last 17 rounds on the PGA Tour.
"It would have been very disappointing and frustrating to end up at even par as well as I played today," four-times champion Woods told reporters after mixing four birdies with three bogeys. "Everything was better.
"To shoot under par just feels like less than I should have shot for the way I played today and that's a good feeling. I felt like I had control of the ball for most of the day."
While Woods erased the memories of his joint second-last finish and 18-over total at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Sunday, Watson putted superbly and Molinari avoided trouble to take joint control.
"It was a great day," the long-hitting Watson said after a round featuring six birdies, two bogeys and several recoveries to save par. "My mental focus was really good and I just putted really well. I kept it going by making some putts.
"If I don't get up-and-down a couple times today, my momentum could shift and I could be mad the rest of the day. I just held it together, and I made some key putts that I needed to make."
Molinari, who tied for 10th in last year's PGA Championship at Hazeltine National, joined Watson at the top by making two birdies in his last three holes.
"I hit the ball quite well all day and basically just tried to stay out of trouble and get some birdies here and there when I had the chances," the 27-year-old said. "Everything went pretty much according to plan."
Although Woods and second-ranked Phil Mickelson both came into this week on a low note after poor finishes at the Bridgestone Invitational, Molinari accepts no major is ever easy to win.
"It's really, really hard to win a tournament like this," the Italian said.
"Obviously Tiger is going to get back to his standards and Phil is going to win more majors, so you just need to play really well and try to grab the occasion when you have it."
Former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, Britain's Martin Laird and Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee were among a group of seven bunched on 70.
Mickelson, who needs to finish no worse than joint fourth this week to have the chance to replace Woods as world number one for the first time, was at one under with seven holes left in the opening round.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)